Using Nanotechnology to Deliver ‘Potentially Transformative’ Peptide-Based Therapeutics

Professor James LaBelle is translating findings in his lab at the University of Chicago to pediatric and adult patients with cancer and immune system disease. (Image:

A physician-scientist, James Labelle is developing therapies that modify the function of the immune system – by examining why, on a molecular level, some pediatric cancers are resistant to treatment.

The key goal of LaBelle’s research group at the University of Chicago is to dissect and target the proteins within cells that induce cancer cell death. The team is using peptides – portions of these proteins – as drugs and tools to discover specific molecular pathways in both normal and diseased cells.

“Our focus has been on using peptide therapeutics made in the likeness of natural protein fragments as drugs,” explained LaBelle, who is an associate professor of pediatrics in the University’s biological sciences division.

According to the researchers, peptide-based therapeutics have “enormous potential” for immune modulation and direct cancer treatment, though they have had limited applications in the clinic due to drug delivery challenges.

“The challenge with using natural segments of peptides as drugs is they lose their secondary shape, get degraded, and don’t get into cells,” explained LaBelle. “What we set out to do was make pre-clinically validated on-target peptide mimetics and figure out how to deliver them in a clinically rational and effective manner.”

To do this, the researchers have married their technology with nanotechnology – working in collaboration with nanotechnologists and chemical engineers.

“We have packaged less than perfectly soluble but very biologically active peptide compounds into nanoparticles, which are able to get into cells very effectively,” said LaBelle.

The team is currently applying these new research tools and prototype therapeutics to target the family of proteins that govern the cell’s decision to live or die, in addition to other proteins.

Said LaBelle, “Our delivery system, if successful, will be able to deliver a wide range of potentially transformative small molecule and peptide-based therapeutics to target cells.”

LaBelle is a recipient of the 2016 Hoogland Lymphoma Pilot Project Award, the 2016 Abbvie-UChicago Collaboration in Oncology Award, the 2018 Hyundai Hope on Wheels Scholar Award, and the 2020 American Cancer Society Research Scholar Award.

LaBelle is among several University of Chicago researchers showcasing their work at Illinois Ignite 2020 later this month. Pre-recorded presentations will be posted on September 24, 2020, and will remain live until October 9, 2020.

>> Register for the virtual event, here.

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